True audiophiles are a strange breed. Since the American musical renaissance of the late 1960's, Baby Boomers have enjoyed the best in music. Many of them took their love of music into a quirky hobby known as audiophilia. Personally, I don't wish it on anybody because audiophiles get off more on audio gear than the music itself, but the 'philes for nearly a generation have built a cottage industry around high-dollar, esoteric audio equipment designed to take the listener as close as they can get to the master tape as physically possible. Now that's a goal worthy of chasing; however there are some inside the audiophile movement who want to see it die with the Baby Boomers thanks to their uber-retro attitude towards new technology and music and the way we interact with music.
Audiophila started in the days of vinyl, but boomed most during the post-1982 Compact Disc era despite the cries from the geeks who think that the higher signal to noise ratio and lack of dynamic range of vinyl records somehow sounds "better" than digital audio, even when digital audio reached HD standards with SACD and DVD-Audio. These are the same people taking about, writing about and publishing hype about a resurgence of vinyl when the total U.S. sales numbers in 2009, according to Nielsen-Soundscan for ALL vinyl records will barely top 2,000,000 units. That's not just for one popular title (note: Thriller sold close to 47,000,000 units) - that's a total sold for all of the new vinyl records. Allow me to translate - vinyl is and remains dead, even if Millenials like to retro-shop at Amoeba Records for old, used records. Used records do not an HD format make or are a meaningful business, nor are Millennial teeny-boppers buying Goldmund turntables and fancy phono stages for their iPod-based playback systems. The new blood must be embraced, but they also need to be sold to with products that they understand, and that means something a little more high definition than a crappy old LP or a 30 year old standard definition Compact Disc.
Case in point: EA Sports Madden 2010 football reportedly sold 3,900,000 units in its first quarter at over $50 retail per title. Make the content compelling, HD, and riveting and people will pay big bucks for it like a top video game title. Down-res music to sell to the lowest common denominator and you have music that's sold, ripped and stolen for an iPod, phone or computer system.
There are those who say that the audiophile business can't be saved from itself, and they make a compelling argument. They say the people who made the business special are gone or in diminished roles. They say dealers sell video over audio despite the thin video profit margins because video is easier to sell to consumers who believe what they see more than what they hear. They say that specialty dealers don't offer any "special" experiences at the store, including relevant, high-value audio systems, so consumers take the low-cost option and buy from big-box stores to save money in tough times.
I can see all of the above arguments as valid but I think at the same time, that people love music more today in 2010 than ever before. The iPod has given hundreds of millions of people access to thousands of songs all-day, every-day for every part of their lives. These people, just like Baby Boomers who got started young with transistor radios, likely will want something a little more high end for their music down the road, and that's the power I see potentially saving specialty audio going forward.
Here are five ideas to save the audiophile business:
1. Bring New Blood To The Game:
a. Invite over your kid's friends to do a vinyl, CD and iPod blind listening test. Whoever gets it right gets a special prize (dinner out, $20 for the mall, let them drive your Ferrari to the prom). Teach them to listen a little more critically. Ask them to describe the sound of each format in terms that they are comfortable with.
b. Organize a Battle of the Bands with a local high school music program, a local recording studio and a local AV store that supports audio. Pick a theme, and have five bands play say, three Beatles cover tunes. The winning band gets a free pair of speakers or headphones or something. The recording studio comes out and records the event live in 24/192 (totally doable with a Mac laptop and about $2,000 in equipment and one person) and then produces DVD or Blu-ray discs of the performance that can ONLY be picked up at the local store. Parents will come in. They will also look at HD video and HD audio of their kids playing "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or "A Day In The Life" at the store. Foot traffic, passion and enthusiasm are created with the kids and the parents who can buy the gear.
2. Buy Local
a. There are times when the deals on eBay, Audiogon and Craig's List are just too good to resist, but buying local helps support dealers that need your support. Make it known to the manager why you buy from their store, what you might want to see in the stores and beyond. Go so far as to email or write to the AV companies whose equipment the dealer sells. Let them know why you buy local and how you support the dealer. This builds community, support and opportunities for more demos and much more.
b. You can go out of state to save taxes, which a lot of people do on the East Coast. If you do this - don't cry when you can't get a good audiophile demo from your local store. Why should they floor a $10,000 preamp for a year when the order (note: I didn't call it a sale) goes to the guy 100 miles away, out of state, who didn't have to take any risk other than emailing in the purchase order.
Read more ways to save the audiophile way on Page 2.
3. Embrace New Technologies
a. AppleTV is pretty cool as are server-based systems like Kaleidescape and Sooloos.
Take the time to rip, manage and control your music in new formats and
don't be shocked to find out that you re-energize your own enthusiasm
for music just like a new CD player or preamp used to do in the old
b. Even if you are rocking an EMM Labs $22,000 CD player at home, by
taking an iPad with you on a trip and/or making it run your control
system (Crestron and others have cool apps) will demonstrate how you
can really expand your audio-video experience.
c. Replace all of your routers and wireless products with Gigabit
capable products. This will allow you to have products like AppleTV and
others running throughout the house so that kids can experience
Internet radio, full resolution AIFF rips from your collection, movies,
TV and more. Integrate these products into your audiophile system.
4. Support HD Music
a. There are labels that make niche
music which are truly high end. B&W Society of Sound is paired with
the likes of the London Symphony Orchestra and Peter Gabriel.
b. Smaller labels like 2L records from Norway have some way-out-there
but good sounding music on Blu-ray and SACD right in the same package.
AIX Records is also coming on strong on the Blu-ray space.
c. SACD still lives on for some labels like Mobile Fidelity, Linn
Records and others. SACD is better than CD yet sells in small volumes.
Go out of your way to buy music in HD as even one disc sold helps.
5. Reject The Audiophile Culture of Snobbery
a. Ever walk
into an audiophile store and have some idiot salesman ignore you to
tell you that you don't have the money to listen to the high end gear?
If this ever happens to you - take down the guy's name and write a
letter to the companies whose gear you wanted to audition. If you don't
know the people to email - I do and I will forward your email. More
people need to hear high end audio and don't need to be discouraged.
b. Cancel your subscriptions to publications that preach retro
technologies and ancient ways of doing things. It's bullshit to suggest
that vinyl is booming, but there are print mags in the audiophile world
that say it's true. It's garbage to suggest that a Compact Disc player
sounds better than an HD disc like a native DSD SACD or 24/192
DVD-Audio or an audio-oriented Blu-ray, yet there are magazines who
promote this kind of retro-snobbery. They don't have many subscribers
left and for good reasons. The reviews that you want are posted online
for free and they are better.
c. Even if your system is an ultra-high-end, apex predator - know about the good, affordable gear. Oppo, Benchmark, Anthem, NuForce, Emotiva, NAD, PSB, Paradigm
and many other brands. Dozens more. Most HomeTheaterReview.com
reviewers got hooked on high end AV gear from owning early NAD
receivers. As we call them - they were "the gateway drug" to bigger and
more expensive additions. The new value players are the same thing - a
starting point or building block to a high end AV system.
Post some of your ideas and comments as to how you would save the audiophile business/hobby.
Let us know if you think that it is dead and/or beyond repair. Would
you help organize our Battle of the Bands idea? What would you do to
promote music, AV and the arts to kids who only really know MP3-level
audio but likely could eventually develop a taste for something better.